The regular contributors on this site will be wrestling often with the question as to what it means to be a “constitutionalist” in our current politics. Constitutionalism was once much more emphasized by conservatives than by liberals. In fact, because an organization like our sponsor, the Jack Miller Center, commits itself in particular to fostering awareness of the Constitution, they were inevitably seen as conservative. In the age of Trump, that has all changed. Those who insist on the Constitution over and against a mere concern with political partisanship are often portrayed as liberals. Inevitably, because some of our contributors will be critical of Trump in one way or another from a constitutional perspective, we will be perceived as a “liberal” site.
But, as Greg Weiner will show in an article you should look for later in the week, this is truly an odd transformation. The conservative critique of progressivism had been that progressives were insufficiently constitutional insofar as they were more concerned with ends than with means and that they were insufficiently respectful of our constitutional traditions. Now, somehow those very same conservatives have embraced Trump—who is more progressive than the progressives on these same issues—as the means by which they can attack the progressives. Insisting on constitutionalism, over and against this illiberalism, is not liberal. It arises from the same kind of constitutional conservatism that at one time informed many in the Republican party.
I am not here suggesting that the Democratic party has become thoroughly constitutional in the way that some constitutional conservatives might have hoped. But, the dialectical nature of politics means, I suspect, that they have become more attentive to constitutional issues in the age of Trump. There is at least some solace in Trump’s consistently unconstitutional behavior if the long-lasting benefit is to bring more attention to the Constitution.
Also, for those of you who are now insisting that Trump has done nothing “unconstitutional,” I am working on a piece to be published sometime in the next couple of weeks about why “constitutional” means much more than merely legal and illegal behavior. For instance, recklessly contesting an election with a series of rumors and theories might not be unconstitutional if we’re talking about legality; it is unconstitutional if we’re talking about the ways in which the Constitution both shapes and depends on certain norms of behavior that are conducive to the long term health of the regime.